Friday, 14 October 2011

The influence of others on sporting performance

Kenyan athletes training in a group
Having taken an extended break from writing whilst working this summer, I have been training and running aplenty. In London I had to fit in a big training schedule with work and commuting. I got fitter and set some PBs at a time when normally I'd be putting my feet up after 4 months of winter training. Having not made a PB for the first time in four marathons, I wanted to up my game and ran with Simon Freeman and runningwithus in my limited free time. Having a personalised schedule was great to help chart progress, but as with my training with Victoria Park Harriers in London and Trafford AC in Manchester, running interval sessions on the track every week helped improve my time and in turn, my confidence.

Simon in particular was a great influence, both on a friendship and athletics level. He encouraged me on and off the track with training. We share a love of endurance running and the mental side of sport, so it was great to be asked to help with an article on the benefits of running in groups.

Since my return to Manchester from London, I've taken a break from the running after setting a PB in the Bristol half marathon, and am head down in study mode for Sport Psych exams with the BPS. Once I've finished the first of my exams completed in early November, I'll be hitting the track as part of my goal to improve on last years Marathon time in London, and to achieve a Boston Qualifying Time (the famous and frankly scary BQT!).

In the meantime, I'll leave the virtues of running as part of a group and the benefits it gives you in training and races to Simon. 

Saturday, 16 April 2011

RDC, Charlie D and me

I can't sleep. My mind is racing with the thoughts of the race in a day and half's time. I'm adjusting to the end of the week and trying to focus on being as relaxed as possible for when I wake, eat and hit the start line at 9.45 on Sunday. It's been an exciting week. Punctuated with meeting the finest female marathon athlete of my generation, having the fear, losing the fear, and talking shop with my housemates, work colleagues and club buddies. Now I need to turn that noise off. Get some quality sleep and focus at the task at hand.

I've moved into weekend mode. Had a massage, eaten good food and caught up with stuff. All thats left is prepare the kit and try to move much slower than I normally do to be at the most clear headed I've been since my last long run to put in a performance I'm happy with. This is where it becomes my domain, my race and whatever I imagine it to be.

The last day though has been exhilarating and this is where I put it to bed. I've been trying to get an interview with Charlie Dark for a month or so. We met a few years ago at Nike's 1948 store in Shoreditch where he started his Run Dem Crew running community, when I was doing my masters in Sport Psychology and proving a point to myself about my capabilities as a runner. I knew of him from friends and old Attica Blues records I'd bought in the early 90s. What I met was a man reinvented and re-invigorated with a love of athletics and what it could give him. I think I made a remark about how it seemed a home for 'ex-ravers who now run'... but over our runs round London I found him a charming character, more shy than the outwardly he appears, but great at goading 30 or 40 people of differing levels of ability to run through London's city centre and sites. Amongst other things Charlie delivered poetry by county hall to the group, gets people to plaster the city in magnetic lights and gives out awards to people who have improved in races and their running.

Finally, a month or so after first discussing it (and after a few missed opportunities) I got told to go to Niketown last night to get the interview. Oh, and "you might get to meet Paula Radcliffe and Steve Cram." He wasn't kidding:

Their talk and Q and A did give out some helpful hints to those running on Sunday. Both Paula and Cram mentioned about using smaller distances in order to disassociate to get through the hard parts of the race. They mentioned making deals with yourself, to your next mile in order to keep the pace up and manage pain.

As the article in the telegraph recently said from her Alberquerque training camp, Paula uses visualisation to see herself finishing strongly up the mall in next's year London Marathon. Its her favourite race and the one she needs to excel in, to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. As the article stated: “I try to imagine that I’m in the closing stages of the marathon in London and that I really need to knuckle down and put the work in." Great advice for anyone running tomorrows race. Good luck to all taking part and I hope you get the performance you wished for.

So on to the interview... I wanted to find out about his journey, how Charlie and the runners in RDC had prepared for the race and how his view of the mental aspects of the discipline have changed over time. My hunch was right. Having started out running as a means to get fit, it is now a lifestyle choice and something that most runners who have stuck at it for a couple of years have found; it gives meaning to achievement and success (if that doesn't sound too far reaching or pretentious) and he sees the significance of the mental aspects of running and training your brain.

Early on, Charlie talks about he motivates himself pre-race by watching a duel in the sun. To him this shows how important the mental aspects of running competition are. The duel between Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar rightly goes down as a classic. A race that pushed both runners to the limits of their respective capabilities.

Later (at 4 minutes), Charlie mentions how he stopped using running as thinking time and now has trained to clear his mind, to focus on each run as it unfolds. This nicely ties into what Dr Tim Holder was outlining as the possible coping strategy of Mindfulness which I've written about previously. If you want to know a bit more about mindfulness, then I've provided a link here. It's not the best video by any means, but gives you a primer to get started with. I've tried it at a local meditation centre and thats a good place to start to understand more about what mindfulness is all about before you incorporate it to your training.

We mention later about Flow - a peak experience often associated with 'being the zone' when all your skills meet the appropriate challenge level to hit your target time. The flow state allows you to be completely involved in an activity for its own sake. I'll be writing in more depth about this after the marathon.  Charlie talks about encouraging others to fulfil their athletic potential - to be the best they can be. A great example of humanist principals which I use to guide my practice!  I've included a TED talk on positive psychology by Martin Seligman here. In there, he talks about flow experiences as well. As you can see, hear and read, its great to see so much sport psych practice and discipline informing the run dem crew, performance and now philosophy. Cheers Charlie. Now go get that 3.30!

Monday, 21 March 2011

Mental Toughness for endurance training

Today's post is written by my friend and sport psych colleague, Carlos Taboas on the topic of mental toughness. Though he comes from the world of cycling, the principles regarding mental toughness apply as much to marathon and other endurance running events. Thanks Carlitos!


My name is Juan Carlos Taboas an ex-pro cyclist and now Sport Psychology graduate. I am writing this guest entry because Stuart asked me to share my knowledge and experiences on mental toughness, which I wrote about in my thesis on team mental toughness in a professional cycling team.
The term mental toughness is often used by athletes, coaches, sport psychologists and the media to describe why some athletes may achieve or are the best in the world in their discipline. It is debated amongst the aficionados that marathon runners Evans Rutto or Paula Radcliffe or cyclists Lance Armstrong or Nicole Cooke are the best ever in their sports. One thing that is agreed by these commentators though is that they all demonstrate exceptional mental toughness.

Marathon running and road cycling share one thing – that they can be considered some of the most grueling tests of human athletic endurance performance. During training and competition, marathon runners and cyclists have to deal with different types of terrain and weather conditions and spend huge amounts of time above 70% maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max). These athletes have to learn how to cope with the physical and mental demands training and competition place on them. In other words, they have to learn how to be mentally tough. But what exactly is mental toughness and how can we improve it?

When asking athletes what mental toughness is, they describe it as “doing whatever is necessary to get the job done”, “not letting anyone break you” or “not being affected by anything but what’s going on in the race”. However, these descriptions do not offer us much light to the understanding of mental toughness.

Jones and colleagues (2002) were the first researchers to address mental toughness using empirical methods. They defined mental toughness as a natural or developed psychological edge that enables mentally tough performers to generally cope better than their opponents with the demands and related pressures that occur in sport. Their study identified 12 essential characteristics of mental toughness. These are self-belief, desire and motivation, focus, coping with anxiety, and dealing with pain and hardship.

So, as with physical fitness, mental toughness is trainable. We also know that in order to have outstanding marathon performances we need to train different aspects of our fitness such us endurance, power, strength and flexibility. Equally, in order to improve our mental toughness we should develop several mental attributes.

Mentally tough marathon runners have an unshakable belief in their ability to achieve their targeted time. As Stuart suggested in this (Self belief) article and as Tim Holder stated in the blog post about goal setting, self belief can be enhanced by undertaking mental training. Try starting by reflecting on past goal accomplishments to your enhance your confidence. Visualisation is another useful tool that can be used to enhance self-belief. Taking some time to imagine yourself achieving your goal, has been shown to improve sporting achievement. Used in conjunction with positive self-talk, a repertoire of positive self-statements relevant to you during training and/or competition (to convince yourself that you are capable of performing well), can assist in developing the required psychological edge.

All of us have a zone of optimal functioning and being in your optimal zone has a positive impact on your confidence. You need to recap past performances in order to find the levels of arousal that are optimal to you. Once these are identified, you can use techniques to ‘psych you up’ or ‘calm you down’ depending on what best suits you. Finally, knowing yourself is vital. Developing self-awareness will uncover the unique qualities that make you better than your opponents, that can be used to your advantage.

All of us have internal and external sources of motivation. Try to identify which are your internal sources of motivation and how they match the achievement of your goals. Remember that mentally tough runners have an internalized motivation to succeed. Reframing your goal setting as performance evolves, is useful to enhance your motivation during setbacks. Step back and set goals that will help you to recover from your ‘toughest times,' however incremental or small during difficult parts of your runs. This will help you to bounce back with increased determination to succeed.

Another important aspect to work on is your focus. Being mentally tough is about remaining fully focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions. You should create a list of cues that allow you to regain focus. Use those cues in situations that negatively affect your concentration on the task in hand. Pain affects our focus and one important characteristic of mentally tough runners and cyclists is their ability to push back the boundaries of physical pain. There are several techniques that will help you with this. Authors in this blog have suggested us the use of mindfulness, association/disassociation strategies and emotion-focused coping. I would say that no one is better than the other. Try them out and keep whichever it works for you.

The final aspect of mental toughness is our ability to handle pressure. Mentally tough runners thrive on the pressure of competition by stepping into the moment and accepting that anxiety is inevitable in competition. Think about it, how would you feel in a race that does not mean anything to you? Are you going to feel anxious? Most likely you won’t. Feeling anxious is not a bad sign. The important thing is to be able to use that anxiety to your advantage. The use of goal setting, self-talk, and imagery are mental strategies to help you to interpret your anxiety as facilitative to performance, especially when they are used in combination. This does not mean that the use of relaxation techniques is wrong, but such techniques may not be appropriate for the activation and arousal demands of some runners. Again, I would say that knowing yourself and what works for you is vital to having the confidence that you possess the ability to handle pressure when it counts.

To conclude, I would say that in order to improve mental toughness we need to work on the presented aspects as a whole. Mental toughness is multidimensional. Mastering one or two of these aspects is not enough. To become mentally tough you need to improve all of them. And, as it happens with the different aspects of our fitness, it takes time and dedication. Remember that mentally tough athletes are determined to make the most of their ability by taking advantage of whatever mental resources they can. So, take heed of this advice and if you want to develop your mental toughness, contact me, Stuart or any other Sport Psychology practitioner that can assist you develop your mental edge.

As ever, any feedback is welcome. If you're participating in a Spring race, have a good run!!!

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Fuelling up for long runs & endurance activity

Today I've got another guest blog. This time from my friend @monicashaw from the smarterfitter blog who has been inspiring me with delicious recipes for over 4 years. Former neighbours in Stoke Newington, she is now based down in Wiltshire as a freelance writer "specializing in science, technology, food and fitness." So an ideal contributor to this blog, particularly as any of you in training for London or Paris marathons should be appropriately fuelling up for your killer 20 - 22 miler in the next few weeks. I owe Monica a lot - she encouraged me both to start blogging and to get swimming lessons, both of which provide me a lot of happiness. Anyway, over to Monica. Please stop by and check smarterfitter in more depth if you like what you see here!

Beyond Bagels: Fueling Up for the Long Run

If you're training for the London or Paris marathons, then you're already well-acquainted with "the long run", that blissful time of the week (usually Saturday or Sunday) when you give up hours of your life to put in those crucial miles that are fundamental to finishing the race. And with marathon day fast approaching (in just over a month? crikey!), those long runs are only getting longer, and more challenging, with each passing week. But you can make those runs a whole lot easier by making sure you feed your body good prior to putting in the miles.

What should I eat the day before a long run?

We've all heard of "carbo-loading" before a big workout, but this doesn't mean eating a massive plate of pasta for breakfast lunch and dinner. Here are a few basic guidelines:

The two days before your long run (and marathon):

  • Aim for at least 65% of calories from carbs
  • Stick to carbs with a low glycemic index (GI) - these are processed more slowly by your digestive system and will make a handy source of fuel during the run
  • Avoid gas-forming foods - do I have to explain why?
  • Stick to low fiber foods - high fiber foods absorb water in your gut and swell, not ideal for a long run
  • Go easy on fatty foods that are hard to digest, such as peanut butter or anything fried
  • Drink lots of water and avoid the booze!
  • Stick to familiar foods that you know will agree with your tummy

Timing is everything - avoid eating solid foods at least three hours before a run. This article in Runner's World offers a few good ideas for people who run at various times of the day:

Food Ideas That Won't Make You Cringe

Here are my favourite low-GI carbs to fuel up on:

  • Root veg - Carrots, yams, sweet potatoes
  • Whole grains - Pearl barley, rye, wheat, brown rice, bulgar
  • Whole grain products - bread, pasta, cereal, pizza bases, pita bread
  • Legumes - lentils, peas, soy beans, kidney beans, chickpeas
  • Fruit - bananas, apples, pears, grapes, apricots, peaches, plums and grapefruit
  • Vegetables - Broccoli, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, green beans, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini

Meal Ideas

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of articles recommending bagels and energy bars as ideal running foods. Bagels have their place and all (usually under a thick layer of cream cheese), but it's not exactly the kind of thing to get you excited about food. Life is short. Runs are long. Here are a few meal ideas to make both a little better:

For breakfast:

Oats (jumbo oats or steel-cut) cooked with pear and topped with toasted pecans (or any other fruit / nut combo)

Bircher muesli with low-fat yogurt and banana

Eggs on wholemeal toast with avocado, roasted tomatoes and steamed spinach

Boiled egg with wholemeal toast soldiers and fresh fruit

Buckwheat crepes (vegan or not) with fruit and low fat yogurt or cottage cheese


For lunch or dinner:

Baked butternut squash stuffed with puy lentils

Jacket sweet potato topped with veggie chili or ratatouille

Ploughman's lunch with wholemeal bread, a bit of cheese, lots of veggies, pickles and apple

Hummus with wholegrain pita bread, tabbouleh and veggies

Veggie-loaded pizza on a wholemeal pizza base (go easy on the cheese, or skip altogether!)

Do you believe in healthy pizza?

Everything salad of veggies tossed with whole grains, lentils, toasted seeds and a good vinaigrette

Lentil & quinoa salad with basil and lemon

Minestrone soup with good crusty bread

Any combination of lentils + grains + greens (i.e. puy lentils cooked in stock served with boiled brown rice and sauteed kale)

Indian dal with basmati rice (a staple in my household) - photos

Sweet potato and black bean chili - photos

Roasted root vegetable salad with butternut squash, beets, carrots and parsnips

Veggies stuffed with veggies and grains - try roasted red peppers stuffed with smoky chickpeas or stuffed tomatoes

Farinata - a chickpea pancake you can use as a pizza base

Red beans and rice - a creole classic, great with steamed greens like kale or chard


Great stuff from Monica, I'm sure you'll agree. What are you favourite pre-run meals? Please add in the comments section and link to any recipes if you can recommend.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Building self belief to help endurance performance

In Andy Preston's post last week, he proposed emotion focused coping can help change our responses to the immense mental and physical challenges experienced during races to help develop your resilience to successfully negotiate marathon races and other endurance events.

I wanted to dwell a little further on mental strength as it is both required in endurance and is a much researched subject in Sport Psychology currently (under the title 'mental toughness'). Given that a lot of readers are competing in European spring marathons and will be undertaking some of their longest runs in training at the moment I'm going to explore self belief this week. Next week we'll touch on mental toughness. We'll explore what sport psychologists do to help build improve these characteristic with clients. My colleague Juan Carlos Lorenzo (a former pro cyclist on the Vuelta de Espana) will guest blog on how mental toughness relates to endurance competition.

Self belief (in sport psychology literature most often referred to as self efficacy) relates to the task at hand in performing within your discipline, as opposed to your general overall confidence as a person. As most sport psych students would be taught in year 1 class Self efficacy is defined as “belief in one's own ability to perform a specific task.”

In my MSc research I investigated the psychological skills needed for successful marathon running. As well as excellence in coping, self efficacy/belief was a crucial factor with the runners I interviewed before and reviewing their performance after the race. Of my sample, one runner had unshakeable belief in their abilities for race day, and achieved the time they wanted. The other runners said they had belief before the race and then afterwards said in hindsight, they knew deep down that they would not achieve their target time.

It would seem therefore, that excellence in self-belief is also required to excel in a race. As a psychologist I'm interested in knowing how an athlete can prepare in such a way that as they get to the start-line they know that they will achieve optimum performance (or be able to negate any barrier that may interfere with achieving it). If you'd asked me after my pre-race interviews whether I thought that all runners had self-belief, superficially I'd have said 'yes'. What was most interesting, listening back to the tapes for transcription and analysis, was that after multiple listens, I could make out the doubt in the voices of the runners who didn't hit their targets. You may say, well that was achieved with the benefit of hindsight! but listening closely, I think I can pick out 1 or 2 instances where I can hear their belief wavering prior to running.

So how was self-belief achieved prior to racing by the most successful of my participants? (and by elite athletes). Unsurprisingly, prior performance gives us a very strong indication for potential achievement. Chris Evert Lloyd famously said that having achieved success at an early age built her confidence in her abilities as she progressed in her tennis career into her adulthood. In the case of my runner, he had an ever improving record in races and a healthy way of framing his progress in his running 'career' even though he only started running at 28.

His goals were achievable each time he raced, never trying to take huge chunks off each event. Instead, he had steadily chipped away at his times, so now he is down to a projected finish time of 2 hours 45. In my study, he had previously just missed out on his first sub 3 hour marathon (by a minute). So for London 2009, he 'only' had to take a minute off to achieve his target time. No mean feat, as the margins for that kind of difference are much smaller as race times come down. However, he had assessed his previous race data and performance meticulously and worked with his coach to work out where this difference could best be overcome through his 16 weeks training.

Having a structured plan from the off, he barely missed a run or other training, but really built in rest time as well. He made sure that when he had a rest day, he properly rested. No little 2 or 3 mile runs. But horizontal, relaxed, REST! Its so tempting to always do 'a little bit more'. I find with friends and clients, building in proper rest is a tough challenge. Everyone always wants to cycle, swim or do something when they should be putting their feet up!

The other main point I found was how this runner also framed prior negative results, i.e. those races which had been painful or where they had just missed out on a pre race goal. He hadn't obsessed about what went wrong, or that it would happen again. He carefully rationalised the situation on race day and took steps to ensure the same mistakes or situations didn't occur in the race being prepared for. He put that to bed, focused on the task at hand and given he had trained to the best of his ability on race day, was confident enough 'to know' he'd finish in the desired time. But what worked for him won't work for all. We're not all carbon copies of each other!

Its an inexact science, and if I could give you a formula, I'd be the most successful practitioner! Hopefully this has gone some way to help you. But additionally, if you haven't done all your training and fear you may miss out on a time, don't take that as read! It's all about the quality of the work you do (and life gets in the way!). Ultimately, we sport psychologists can work with you on confidence, but once you're at the line its up to you and how you perform and cope on the day. The training runs are the place to experiment and go through the pain, but through collaborating together, sport psychologists and athletes can work to minimise those naughty distractors and inhibitors. This won't guarantee you'll definitely achieve your desired result, but its more likely you'll be nearer to getting it.

Any tips you care to share about how you build your self-belief, please add in the comments section or get back to me. What I've covered is by no means exhaustive, and it'd be great to hear what has inspired or worked for you.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Successful Running? State of Mind, or State of Emotion?

Today I hand over controls of the blog to my colleague Andy Preston of the University of East London where he lectures on sport science. He also specialises in Marathon research and today gives us some pointers on coping strategies. If you're London based, I recommend you read all the way through, as at the end, Andy offers assistance if you want to participate in his research. Over to you Andy!

When asked to contribute to Stuart’s blog, it struck me that much of the stuff us runners are expected to read, digest, and interpret is written from a so-called ‘expert point of view’ – then translated into “runners’ speak” to fill our favourite runners’ magazines, training guides and runners’ bibles. This translation/retranslation is a problem which also transfers itself into your own - the runner’s - experience of marathon.

What’s amazing about endurance running, is it’s a personal, subjective challenge regardless of each individual’s level of experience, ability and knowledge. What I also find inspiring, as a researcher and sports scientist, is that our ability to cope with the mental and physical challenges sent our way over the distances we train and compete will differ on a moment-by-moment basis too.

But right there lies the problem. Stuart in discussion with Tim Holder, has explained with clarity what the scientific community knows and understands about how thousands of runners have trained for, and competed in, these challenges. But here’s me, a 4+ hour plodder, trying to explain what we know about how people ‘cope’ with a marathon.

I could waste hours of your life telling you how I coped the last time I ran the London Marathon. But you can get that kind of experience over a bowl of pasta at any pre-race party, from any one of thousands of other runners (one of my more interesting research experiences was trying to capture said marathon experience wearing a Dictaphone and microphone around the London course – but more on that some other time, eh?). My problem with the hundreds of articles, features, chapters and guides we all digest diligently is this: “Does knowing how a bunch of strangers dealt with their Marathon difficulties tell you anything about your own abilities to cope with yours today, tomorrow, or next Sunday?

So first – Some Theory

Typically, coping is associated with mistakes, failures, threats and stress – but, according to Dr Richard Lazarus, a leading athletic coping researcher, appraisal of stress may also be related to performance success. Previous blog entries talked about how we might set performance and outcome goals to enable us to cope during demanding phases of the race, and that we frequently base these on what we think we can successfully achieve.

Adam Nicholls, another leader in endurance coping research, suggests that in a similar way, us runners are not thought to approach each new and unfolding mid-run challenging situation by evaluating then reacting to it with a novel solution, but rather by drawing upon a preferred set of pre-existing coping strategies, which are relatively unchanged over time. We cope, it’s suggested, the same way we goal-set, essentially based on what went before.

So, regardless of the hours spent listening to advice, reading books and strategically pre-planning, does this mean that each of us will unconsciously follow that pre-programmed blueprint as soon as we perceive our mid-race mistakes, difficulties and stresses to be a threat to our distance-running goals and targets?

And When The Research Stops.
This is where I believe research has so far failed to offer real value to us endurance running crowd. A second bit of Nicholls’ proposition, and the bit that I believe best taps into our own personal experience, is the idea that we all have a ‘transactional’ coping strategy. Our race-time mindset, adjusted moment-by-moment as our depleting energy resources bring on fatigue and distress, induces a thinking-based response which eats away at our confidence, at our mental toughness and resilience, belief, and our pre-race or early-race evaluation of our abilities to achieve whatever it is we set out to do. Set against the previously stated mental blueprint of coping strategies, it’s little wonder that we recruit an artillery of mental tools to manage pain, or push on to maintain our target pace.

But our emotion-focused coping resources are, I propose, the secret weapon to help us win the marathon war. An American Air-Force genius created the stealth bomber, so called because it’s invisibility on enemy defence equipment enabled it to hit targets without being seen ‘on the radar’.

Our radars scan constantly as we run. Each blip of ‘challenge’ means we use our army of mental coping defences to meet that moment-by-moment demands flying our way. But invisible on our radars is the stealth bomber of emotions. We know that emotions play a crucial part in our ability to successfully perceive the extent of our mental and physical coping resources – and it’s quite often our emotional responses to the perceived inability to successfully cope which herald the cognitive responses that doom us to ideas of failure.

Emotion-focused coping is aimed at regulating the emotions tied to the various physical and mental stresses and disengaging from a demanding situation, without adjusting the stressful situation itself. By reducing or eliminating the symptoms we experience as a result of the massive stresses encountered ‘down the road’, rather than addressing the source of the problem, us runners may then also be more able to focus upon the emotions associated with our continued successful performance.

Excellence in coping, we’d argue, may therefore precede excellence in performance
If you are reading this and the clunking sound of a penny dropping somewhere in your ‘runner’s brain’ just resonated, here’s some terrific news.

Emotional regulation is thought to help us cope better with so-called ‘uncontrollable’ demands – a sudden unexpected feeling of tiredness; a soul-sapping headwind on a rainy race day, or the onset of sudden and unexpected muscle soreness on the pre-taper long one. While I’m not suggesting that those mental strategies – associating/dissociating are irrelevant, I’d argue that these strategies do not help you change HOW you evaluate your performance during a race – which in itself means that afterwards you cannot evaluate if your ability to cope was effective, or not. But this evaluation, Nicholls argued, is how we then construct our coping strategies for future events.

So what I’m proposing you do is this. Think very carefully about how you felt before, during and after your last great race/training run. Do this soon after your next great run too. How did those feelings motivate you to continue, to push on, or to speed up. How did they help you triumph over challenge and adversity. If you write these down, in your training/race diary for example, then mores the better. Were there negative emotions involved, but ones that made you more determined to succeed? Include these! Importantly, I’m not asking you to build up a library of cognitions here. Don’t dwell on what you thought. Consider how you felt. Elated? Invigorated? How did it feel to stave off physical and mental fatigue, or triumph over the temporary pain of the last few miles.

With this library of personally powerful emotional resources, we can start to manipulate our emotional appraisal of our running, on a mile-by-mile (or even a yard-by-yard) , and uniquely personal basis. So by seeking out the emotional experiences we associate with our own best performance, we can change our emotional responses to the immense mental and physical challenges experienced during races, and in time, bring ourselves to the start-line with an emotional strength that can withstand the mental and physical battering that we know each race could throw our way. This emotional strength, in association with our preferred mental strategies mid-race, will combine to make each of us more resilient if things don’t go to plan, and create a frame of mind more able to cope with the range of mental challenges that for now, sports psychologists don’t have the silver bullet to cure.

I’d appreciate any comments and feedback, not least because I am actively researching the complex area of coping in endurance sports, but from an individualistic, rather than collective viewpoint. In time, I hope Stuart invites me back to share some further ideas (Ed: Yup!), and findings from studies being carried out now and in the near future. In the meantime, if you are an active runner (of any level), and think you’d like to test out some new ideas on the next endurance event you are training for, please e-mail me at

Friday, 18 February 2011

What happens to your brain during runners high?

In my last post, I was suggesting runners high could be a motivating factor in maintaining training and have a role in improving performance. If exercise feels good, it follows you may be more likely to continue at your endeavours as the happy feeling rewards the effort put in. Todays post will try and explain what is actually happening in your brain when you experience runners high, how this affects pain management and the implication for 'addiction' to exercise.

In the previous post I explained how research had demonstrated an endorphin driven runners high. Endorphins are the molecules produced in the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus that act as the bodies 'homemade' opiates. These act to relieve pain and produce a feeling of calm and well being. Endorphins are also produced and provide the feelings experienced when we eat spicy food, fall in love or have an orgasm.

The endorphin hypothesis for runners high holds that when strenuous exercise takes a person over a physical threshold, endorphin production is activated. Endorphins are released during long, continuous workouts, when the level of intensity is between moderate and high, and breathing is difficult. During a release of endorphins the person may be exposed to bodily harm from strenuous exercise after going past their body's physical limit. With runners this means that they can keep running despite pain, surpassing what they once considered to be their limit, in turn experiencing the phenomenon as pleasurable. It also goes someway to accounting for the crazy look in the eyes of runners and their behaviour after a heavy workout!

Boecker's research in 2008 showed for the first time that an increase in the release of endorphins occurred in certain parts of the athletes' brains after conducting scans of runners 2 hours after exercise (compared to their resting state beforehand). Boecker's findings showed that endogenous opiod neurotransmitters are released in the frontolimbic system of the brain. Thus more of the bodies own opiods were released in runners in the study, who also reported a significant increase in euphoria and happiness ratings compared to their resting state.

However, it is also suggested by researchers that endorphins are just some of the many chemicals that contribute to runner's high. Other candidates include epinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. Yesterday, whilst researching this subject I found evidence cited in the New York Times proposing that the endocannabinoid system may be more responsible for runners high than endorphins.

The main thrust of this argument is that endorphins, are composed of relatively large molecules, “which are unable to pass the blood-brain barrier,” (Hill, 2011 in the article here). This contradicts Boecker's findings, and according to Dietrich and McDaniel (2004) “several prominent endorphin researchers have criticised the endorphin hypothesis for being “overly simplistic” and “poorly supported,” though it should be noted these views were made before Boecker's study. Instead, the endocannabinoid system, is proposed by researchers such as Hill as being more responsible for runners high as these molecules produced naturally by the body are small enough to be able to cross the brain blood barrier and thus account for the “unexpected psychological changes, such as euphoric sensation, a heightened sense of well being and a transcendence of space and time.” These are the same sensations experienced in the brain when people take marijuana, as the drugs active ingredient also binds to the same receptors.

Authors behind the endocannibinoid hypothesis for runners high (such as Dietrich and McDaniel) don't claim that their theory is 100% sound, and want researchers from a variety of backgrounds to investigate further. One criticism that can be levelled at a lot of the research is that it relies on findings from research on rats, and we cannot directly take results from such studies and apply them to humans. However, Dietrich and McDaniel, and another study by Dietrich in 2003 was researched on humans to go some way to prove the cannibinoid hypothesis.

I've emailed Dr Boecker to try and see if he is able to respond to the evidence presented by the New York times article and studies proposing the cannibinoid hypothesis. If he is willing to provide a view for the blog then I'll include this. As is, I think this is a fascinating area that has a long way to run (if you'll pardon the pun) in accounting for how as a species we subjectively experience elation and pain management in relation to endurance exercise. It may also go some way to account for what some people would term 'exercise addiction' and overtraining. In one of my next blogs, my colleague Andy Preston of UEL will write more on psychological coping strategies related to marathon running. As ever, please feel free to comment and feedback on the information I've given you here.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Runners high as motivation

After a couple of hard days of work I just went out to shake away the cobwebs and put in todays run early so I can get to a couple of appointments this afternoon. I've always had a theory that for every 10 runs you do, 1 or 2 will be stinkers that you just have to get through in order to be able to enjoy the next ones. We can't be happy bunnies all the time, so that thinking makes sense to this psychologist.

I've been enjoying my running and training in the last fortnight after finally shifting a cold that lingered from Christmas. I can feel the improvement and I've been having good banter with my clubmates at training. I knew I had to put some hill work in today and used Jutland Street behind Piccadilly to get the stamina in the legs. This picture of the hill shoes before and after gentrification but you can see 15 reps of this bad boy would test anyones mettle! Most runners in Manchester know it and you often see others putting themselves through the workout!

Maybe because I needed to let my brain sort out a few things from the last few days (and rarely for me I had music on), but I didn't face this run with the usual trepidation. Maybe due to also having some strength built up in my legs from the last month it wasn't so daunting. By the time I finished and was jogging back home, I did feel the elation I've come to associate with runners high. As a psychologist with an interest in the neuroscience of the brain, I'm curious about the conditions you need to experience this feeling. In my MSc I did explore the idea of trying to do a study to 'induce' runners high in people, but the practicalities of an experiment limited it. I was inspired by a study by Prof Hans Boecker that managed to locate where in the brain runners high was experienced by marathon runners. This was seen via positron emission tomography (PET) scans in an experiment three years ago. But it is very difficult to specify 'if you do x, then y will occur.'

What I can confirm is that I have experienced runners high on a number of occasions, and the feeling of euphoria probably keeps me running - chasing that high when you've had a good session and all the conditions are present to reward the effort exerted. I was quoted for an article by a friend, Monica Shaw, about the subject and I will definitely look to research this in more detail as my career progresses.

In line with what I was writing about motivation for runners during training, I had forgotten about this feeling, as I can get caught up with the chase of improving times and PBs, but as I tell clients/runners, fundamentally you should enjoy your sport/running first, and then it is more likely such experiences will occur and the times will follow. I don't think it is a coincidence that I experienced runners high for the first time in a while after eating good food and having had 10 hours sleep.

What about you? Can any readers cite examples and conditions of when they've properly experienced runners high? What conditions do you think you need in order to experience it? Is runners high a motivation to keep running? Please let me know, I'm interested to hear your experiences.

Overall, if you get a bit sick of running do remember the enjoyment factor! It's easy to forget!

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Mental strategies for marathon running - Part 2

From a talk by Dr Tim Holder at St Mary's University, 30/1/2011 

In my last entry, I wrote about what Tim had to say on goal setting and how this can be used by athletes to help motivate themselves in training and in race scenarios. Crucially, goals have to be both realistic and achievable. Whilst accepting setbacks will occur, training should condition the athlete mentally and physically to reach the optimal performance level on the day. Tim said the role of coaches and sport psychologists is to help athletes 'get through the emotional, to reach the rational.' This is done by trying to 'control the controllables', which is why process goals are so important as these are under personal control, unlike outcome goals.

Within a marathon event, an athlete will have to confront and deal with fatigue, distractions (from the environment, themselves, and others), pacing and perceived exertion, and boredom and anxiety about negative emotional states. So the role of attention is hugely important. Where the mind is focused moment to moment has been shown to make a big difference in how runners cope with and manage pain.

The two most researched concepts have been i) Internal or external focus, and ii) Association and Disassociation. Internal focus is the process of focusing inward on yourself and your feelings during a run. External focus being the direction of attention to the events around you. Tim's examples of these being mile markers, lamp posts and even other runners backsides! i.e. Anything in the environment that can be seen and used.

Association and disassociation relate to how a person monitors their physiological symptoms. Associating is when you monitor how you physically feel. Disassociation relates to directing your attention away from negative physical symptoms.

During a race your attention will switch between all of these concepts. But using some tricks in training can assist in managing pain, in order to find what works best for you.

Evidence has shown that focussing externally whilst disassociating to be the most effective strategy to delay the onset of 'hitting the wall.' Hitting the wall (or 'bonking' in triathlons) occurs with some people in race conditions when the bodys natural glucose levels are depleted, leading to the body burning its natural fat levels, causing enormous physical and mental discomfort. Tim gave the example of concentrating the mind to choose an object in the envitonment to race towards. This way the race is broken down into smaller chunks. As stated, mile markers can be used to do this, though the relative distance between these can mean that as tiredness bites, you may struggle to 'get through' to the next mile.  Focusing the mind to different, closer markers, such as lampposts can be a more effective strategy.

On a 10 mile tempo run this week, I tried this out. I was clocking between 7 and 8 minute mileing and being pushed by faster runners throughout. Taking Tim's advice, I ran 'micro' races to a point no further than 25 metres in the distance. Each time, I would run towards it, in my mind I would say to myself that I'd finished each 'race.' As I passed the object I would repeat the process over again. I have to say, I found this strategy helpful. As the run wore on my quads were aching but this strategy meant it felt like I didn't have so far to go, even though I knew I was tricking myself. It meant I could maintain my speed and not feel so tired. This doesn't work for all though. For Paula Radcliffe, as she passes a mile marker, she counts to 100 to focus her concentration. Others I have researched have 'chunked' London by famous landmarks as they go round the course.

Overall, the most successful runners I have met, regardless of their target finish time, have all managed to re-focus their mind on the race at hand, via a strategy that works for them in order to deflect or manage pain. Sometimes by attending to a discomfort and then trying to minimise it rationally can have quite a powerful effect. Usually I have found people describe how they 'chunk' their current position, i.e. 'I only have to make it to the next drinks station to top up on lucozade to ease the pain I am feeling.'

Tim did mention mindfulness (a buddhist practice of directing attention to present moment experiences and accepting pain as inevitable) as an area researchers are interested in using as a strategy to cope with pain. Mindfulness is thus a series of ongoing negotiations to experience emotions into the present. This is something that hasn't been proved empirically to work so far, but I would be interested to see if it works for anyone. Similarly, I am personally exploring having brief sessions of EMDR to see whether a clinical method can be effective in coping with marathon pain. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a proven clinical treatment, most famously used with victims of PTSD to cope with emotional or distressing experiences. As far as I know it hasn't been adapted to be tried in dealing with marathon pain. I will let you know how that goes in due course, thought I accept it won't be a tool available to most people.

If you have successfully used mental tricks and tips to cope with discomfort, can I ask that you please add a comment below this entry and share it with others. Not all strategies work equally for everyone, but as those who are training for the Paris and London marathons are doing longer weekly runs, it is a good time for you to try out new ideas to see what works. I always remember a mantra an old colleague of mine says to themselves in long races. I like it and I have found it to work before:

"Everyone has to go through this s***! - you won't be the first, and you won't be the last!" Good luck!

Friday, 11 February 2011

Mental strategies for marathon running

From a talk by Dr Tim Holder at St Mary's University 30/1/2011 for UKA

Tim started by emphasising that successful marathon running is an exercise in managing pain. The next few entries to this blog will explore this position in more depth. If you are taking part in a distance race it is hoped this advice can help you and you can try some of the tips in training.

During a marathon all runners at some point will experience physical and mental strain and pain. By accepting this and having effective strategies with which to cope can help an athlete achieve their goals for the race. In this and the next blog entry, I'll outline advice to use during training on goal setting to help motivate athletes and how to use coping strategies to reach their potential on race day. Evidence across a range of sports has shown effective goal setting can have a positive impact come race day. On the flip side, unrealistic or poor goal setting has been shown to lead to a runner feeling disappointed with their performance at the finish if they miss their goal/s.

Tim cited Paula Radcliffe, who motivates herself for races by aiming to run faster than she's ever done previously before each race. However, that is only one type of goal that you can use to help you.

Such a goal is described as outcome oriented. In sport, there are 3 kinds of goal that can be set. These are outcome, performance and process goals. An outcome goal is a comparison against another, e.g. "I am going to beat Haile Gebrselassie." For a competitive athlete like Radcliffe, this is a powerful motivating force. However, for the majority of runners in a marathon, aiming to beat a particular foe (or friend!) can be very negative if unfulfilled. Research has shown outcome goals provoke greater anxiety, as they are both uncontrollable and potentially unrealistic - as my example about beating Gebrselassie shows!

What has been shown as healthier to concentrate on are performance and process goals. These are both in the control of the individual. A performance goal is a comparison to an absolute measure. In marathon most often this will be a time an athlete is aiming to achieve. However, these can be unrealistic and can be 'all or nothing' in the mind of the competitor which can lead to anxiety. The best way to use these goals is to use different measures of performance to motivate you for a race situation. So rather than aiming for a 4 hour finish, Tim recommended:

A 'should goal': What you expect to do as a minimum
A 'could goal': When a time comes together (e.g. a personal best)
A 'just might' goal: The ideal scenario

In my case for London I'm aiming to improve on my PB of 3:27. So taking Tim's advice as an example:

My should goal is: 3:30
My could goal is: 3:25
My just might goal is: 3:20

Though my training is going well, I didn't get to do as much pre-training before Christmas, so I'm being realistic with my goal setting. If I finish with 3:29:59 then I'll be happy, despite this being slower than my PB - given my conditioning. Beyond that, my satisfaction will increase with every minute I take off that finish time.

To reach these performance goals, an athlete can enhance their running with process goals. These are specific aspects of your overall performance that fall under individual control. Your posture, cadence, strategies for dealing with fatigue (e.g. attention), pacing and building up mental strength can all be practiced and built up through training.

Given the 3 months required to train, not only should you try and work at your speed, distance and physical conditioning, training runs should be used to sharpen up mental strategies in preparation for race day. If you've prepared well mentally through training, come race day, whatever scenario might occur (from bad weather, to other runners, having a 'bad day' in the race, physical discomfort or whatever), you have a repertoire that can be drawn upon.

In my entry tomorrow, I will outline specific mental strategies you can implement as your weekly mileage goes up, to help you get to an optimal level of performance come race day.

Friday, 4 February 2011

What is the difference between Sport Psychology & Coaching?

This post should probably have appeared at the very beginning when I started this blog 3 years ago. Back then, I was a raw first time marathoner, blogging my experience, nowhere near the worlds of sport psychology or coaching.

Over time I've refined what I write to cover sport psychology concepts and advice about coaching - tied into my experience as I've developed my practice with athletes in both fields. Crucially (and wrongly) I've taken for granted that everyone who reads this understands what I'm talking about!

So, to be absolutely clear, I'm going to use this post to define both, explain the similarities and differences between the disciplines and where the work of the two professions overlaps. I've shot an interview with Dr Tim Holder of St Mary's University in which he explains how the work of sport psychologists has altered working with coaches over the last 20 years in the United Kingdom.

But first, the definitions.

What does an athletics coach do? According to the good people at Wikipedia, Coaching:

" the practice of supporting an individual, referred to as a client, through the process of achieving a specific personal or professional result." I had to use this definition, for when I looked at the UKA website (the body who administers coaching in the UK), it didn't have a definition I could use here!

What does a Sport Psychologist do? and how does this differ to coaching? One of my heroes in the field, Dr Mark Anderson of Victoria University (AU) says in his book'Doing Sport Psychology (Chapter 1 p.6):

“My job is to talk to athletes about how things are going for them to see if there are ways we can work together to make their athletic involvement more help with some of the mental aspects of training and competition.” Not much different from a coach right? Indeed, Doherty (1976) says “Not all the successful coaches I have known have been effective teachers of techniques, but with no exceptions, all have been effective on this human side of the coaching coin.” But coaches have to do more than teach techniques. They have to motivate their athletes, build team cohesion, goal set, and assist in things that are clearly psychological (Brewer, 2000). 

As Anderson and Brewer point out though, coaches have to be careful being sport psychologists as there may be a conflict of interest if they are simultaneously trying to help for both performance and clinical reasons. That is not to say that sport psychologists work solely on clinical issues (e.g. recovering from injury, retiring from competition, overcoming eating disorders, dealing with depressed or anxious athletes), though some do. More that coaches can't cover everything that their multidisciplinary role requires – e.g. they can advise on stretching/warm up as a physio would, but a physio can advise in greater depth as part of a multi-disciplinary coaching team. Ergo, a good sport psychologist can get to know an athlete in more depth about their motivation, their mental strength, anxieties and goals in a way a coach may not be able to.

In short, Anderson advocates letting coaches get on with enhancing their relationship with an athlete to aid their performance and achieve their 'overall coaching objectives', and allow access for sport psychologists to work with athletes to help the athlete understand about themselves and their (mental) strengths, enhance their mental skills, and where necessary, intervene in clinical issues as anyone would in a 'normal' therapeutic relationship.

The British Psychological Society (the organisation with whom I am an accredited probationary sport psychologist) outlines the following ways in which sport psychologists work: "Sport psychologists work with individuals, teams, and organisations in a wide range of contexts including:"

  • Helping elite performers to develop preparation strategies to deal with the demands of competition and training
  • Applying research into motor learning and psychophysiological processes to maximise practice and fitness regimes
  • Assisting coaches, managers, and referees with enhancing their interpersonal and communication skills
  • Counselling injured athletes during their rehabilitation

Where do sport psychologists do their work? "Some sport psychologists work as private consultants, or hold full-time positions with professional sports teams or national governing bodies of sport, but most combine their consultancy work with teaching and research in University departments." This is the area in which I am trying to move in my career.

To give you an example of what a 'real' sport psychologist does, I was kindly helped by Tim Holder of St Mary's University, who explained how the relationship between sport psychologists and coaches has developed over the last 20 years in the UK. I also asked him how the field is changing and what he is doing with the Endurance Performance and coaching centre at St Mary's University.

The goal of the centre is to "create a performance environment within which athletes are able to live and train together in high quality groups, whilst also offering a variety of educational opportunities.” At St Mary's student athletes train alongside international level athletes who use the facilities as their training base train and obtain support from coaches, nutritionists, sport psychologists, bio-mechanists and physiologists. Thus a multi-disciplinary team can help optimise the whole athletic experience. This is an approach that is on the increase, as described by Alberto Salazar with the US endurance teams use of a sport science team in the US's training for major competition.

Tim gives some interesting insights into the work he has done and how the work of coaches and sport psychologists has evolved. [Forgive the filming squashing Tim into the middle of the screen - this was my first attempt at filming via a phone for the blog!]. Afterwards I asked Tim, "Whats your view on Sport Psychologists conducting coaching as well? What warnings, from experience, would you give?"

Tim Holder: "From my experience sport psychologists can bring a great deal to a coaching situation particularly if they have a skill acquisition background as well. The only issue that can emerge is if you have a dual role as coach and sport psychologist - it is important then to be clear as to which role you are in (or which hat you are wearing) as expectations and responsibilities are clearly different."

This agrees with Mark Anderson's view, particularly for the sport psychologist who also coaches. Personally, I have spent the last six months coaching using some sport psychology techniques in the process (mainly addressing anxiety issues in athletes, and working on athlete confidence and preparation for competition). This is partly because I have been in training for coaching qualifications. Also I have been learning under the tutelage of head coaches at an athletics club and my role has been to support them coaching. Within this work (using the experience I have from my sport psychology training) I bring the appropriate level of psychology to enhance athlete performance. But fundamentally what I bring to all my work with clients, and at the core of my work, is care for the athlete. This covers the approach you take with the person, how you view them and their athletic potential, and ensuring that confidentiality and insurance are adhered to.

In the next blog I will be passing on advice from Tim to endurance runners (predominantly, but not exclusively around marathon) from the UKA open day about mental strategies to help in training and races. I hope you found this post helpful and I welcome any questions or feedback.

Monday, 31 January 2011

UKA Training Tips for Marathons - St Mary's Uni 30/1/2011

Speaker: Mick Woods (UKA Endurance Performance Coach to Stephanie Twell and Charlie Purdue)

Throughout Mick emphasised the importance of preparation for the marathon event, from the beginning of training, to the day itself. Having competed in over 70 marathons himself, including the first ever London Marathon in 1981, he had experience as both a coach and as a runner.

Mick emphasised the need for Marathon runners to have an endurance base from which to build. In an ideal situation, you will have a good 6 months of running before the day of your marathon. The building of a base level occurs by running increasing distances over 3 months prior to starting marathon training. Ideally this then leads straight into the beginning of the 16 week Marathon training cycle. At the beginning of the 16 week build up to the Marathon event, you should add in more speedwork than you have been doing already.

If you have run a marathon in the previous year, your body will have adapted so that you won't have to go back to the same training plan and level of mileage/effort that you did previously. At the 3 month point (16 weeks before race day) you should begin your full plan, the likes of which can be found online and in Runners World.

We were then shown a chart devised by Jeff Galloway (1981) which Mick deemed the most accurate guide to the amount of weekly miles an athlete should be completing to reach a desired target time in the 16 week cycle:

3 hours - 45 to 55 miles/week

3 hours 10 - 40 to 50 miles/week

3 hours 20 - 38 to 48 miles/week

3 hours 30 - 35 to 45 miles/week

4 hours - 30 to 40 miles/week

So: In the case of a runner aiming for 3 hours 30, they should start their first of 16 weeks at around the 30 miles per week total mileage, and then build up to covering just over 45 in their biggest week. For all, the longest run should be about 25% of your total mileage. Before anyone says anything, I know this means that if our 3 hour 30 runner did 22 miles as their longest run, in theory this would mean they would cover 88 miles in total! Obviously this shouldn't be attempted. Instead, the role of quality running was emphasised, and so (in this case) the other 27 miles should be made up of speed/tempo work, maybe a hill run, and a steady run. Certainly by the time of taper core work should be much more prominent than at week 1 of the cycle. See my blog post for Alberto Salazar's views of using weights during marathon training.

Mick then gave us the golden answer to a question I'm often asked as a coach.

"At what speed should I run my long runs?!'

Answer: You should maintain a steady pace throughout and run 30 to 60 seconds SLOWER than your target time marathon pace.

e.g. If you want 3 hours 30, you need to run 8 minute miles in the race. In your long runs you should keep your speed between 8.5 and 9 minute mileing.

I'll put my hand up and say that for the last year I have been running my long runs at the same speed I race. This year I will follow this advice. However, in the last half hour, see if you can up your speed on a regular basis. I am also ignoring my new coaches advice to only run for 2 hours maximum prior to race day. I think it a foolish approach in retrospect.

"How long should your longest run (of the whole 16 weeks) be?"

Answer: About as long as your intended time (with a margin taken off).

e.g. If you are aiming for 3.20, you should run for about 3 hours on your longest run. Use this as a guide for your longest training runs. The importance of the time on your feet is that you should fully experience the physical and mental conditions of what it feels like for that length of time near to the race (however experienced you may be). Once you've done your longest run, then really really rest in your taper!

Many examples were given of good runners who couldn't resist the urge, with all their training under their belts, and with their engines 'revving', going out and either doing too long a run in the 3 week taper, or too fast in a speed session during this rest time.

A few extra tips:

Throughout training:

1) Monitor your weight. If you lose a lot, then you may be depleting your glycogen levels which you will need to ease past to 'the wall' in the race.

2) Make sure you take iron, vitamins C and D supplements - particularly in the taper as your immune system will be recovering from your max milling the week before and thus susceptible to sniffles/illness.

3) Within your 20 mile runs, include at least 1 race.

If you are over 3 hours in your projected time, aim to run your 20 mile race at just under marathon pace but faster than your normal long run. If you feel comfortable and able to in a 20 mile race, go at marathon pace in the last 20 to 30 minutes to build in speed as well as stamina.

If you are sub 3 hours, aim to run it just a bit faster than marathon pace.